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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Thinkers in an Indeterminate Cosmos


Melody Lee

Sir Karl Raimund Popper was an Austrian-born British philosopher who became one of the most influential philosophers of science by making significant contributions to debates of general scientific methodology and theory choice. He promoted falsifiability as a necessary criterion of empirical statements in science. Popper's early work revolved around solving the problem of demarcation and offering a clear criterion that distinguished scientific theories from metaphysical or mythological claims.

Karl Raimund Popper
Karl Raimund Popper

Popper was born on July 28, 1902 in Vienna, Austria. His parents were of Jewish origin and brought him up in an atmosphere which Popper himself later described as “decidedly bookish”. His father was a lawyer but also had an interest in philosophy and even communicated the importance of social and political issues to his son. His mother educated Popper with a passion for music so much so that he almost considered it as a career and even chose the history of music as a second subject for his PhD. His love for music became one of the inspirational forces in the development of his thought and manifested itself in his highly original interpretation of the relationship between dogmatic and critical thinking. He was even qualified to teach mathematics and physics in secondary school in 1929 after obtaining a primary school teaching diploma in 1925.

He focused on mathematics and theoretical physics in 1918 at the University of Vienna. Ten years later, he received a PhD in Philosophy after writing his dissertation On the Problem of Method in the Psychology of Thinking. His dissertation was primarily about the psychology of thought and discovery. In 1935, Popper published his first major work in the realm of the philosophy of science with his book Logik der Forschung, translated as The Logic of Research. Popper later translated the book into English and changed the title to The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Popper stayed in Vienna until 1937 and left when he took a teaching position at Canterbury University College in Christchurch, New Zealand. During this time, he published another book that would add to his collection of major works on the philosophy of science with the title The Poverty of Historicism. Popper decided to refocus his writings on social and political philosophy when German troops marched into Austria to annex the German-speaking nation for the Third Reich, known as the annexation of Austria. From this, he published The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945 as a critique of a political system or form of government that bans opposition parties, also known as totalitarianism. A year after, he moved to England to teach as a professor of logic and scientific method at the London School of Economics.

Karl Popper's two most influential works included The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published in 1959 and Objective Knowledge, published in 1972. The Logic of Scientific Discovery is an analysis of scientific thinking through the eyes of Karl Popper himself and investigates where scientific findings fit within the realm of philosophy. He does so by examining what differentiates true knowledge from false knowledge. He discusses his method for testing theories, known famously today as falsifiability. Popper directly and repeatedly rejects induction as a viable scientific method and tests the application of his principles on problems associated with probability. As Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains,

“Karl Popper, for instance, regarded the problem of induction as insurmountable, but he argued that science is not in fact based on inductive inferences at all (Popper 1935 [1959]). Rather he presented a deductivist view of science, according to which it proceeds by making bold conjectures, and then attempting to falsify those conjectures. In the simplest version of this account, when a hypothesis makes a prediction which is found to be false in an experiment, the hypothesis is rejected as falsified. The logic of this procedure is fully deductive. The hypothesis entails the prediction, and the falsity of the prediction refutes the hypothesis by modus tollens. Thus, Popper claimed that science was not based on the extrapolative inferences considered by Hume. The consequence then is that it is not so important, at least for science, if those inferences would lack a rational foundation.”

In Objective Knowledge, Popper explains why objective knowledge matters by introducing a four-stage problem solving schema which helps to illustrate the unity of imagination and reason required in the different phases of problem solving activity.

Due to Popper's familiarity with the Marxist view of economics, class-war, and history, he continued to be dissatisfied by the failure of the democratic parties. In Popper's eyes, Marxism was initially scientific, but with predictions that were not proven. These factors combined to make Popper take falsifiability as his principle for dividing science from non-science. Popper represented that the central problem in the philosophy of science is demarcation. Demarcation is the action of fixing the boundary or limits of something--for example distinguishing between science and what he termed as non-science. Popper wanted to capture the logical or methodological differences between scientific disciplines such as physics, and non-scientific disciplines such as myth-making and philosophical metaphysics. Popper's thoughts pertaining to demarcation is usually seen as a response to the verifiability criterion of demarcation, meaning that a statement is only meaningful if and only if it is possible to verify.

Among the contemporary philosophers Popper is considered the most unusual because he accepts the validity of David Hume's critique of induction. Popper rejects induction and the view that it is the characteristic method of scientific investigation by substituting falsifiability in its place. He argues that this is easy because in his logic a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a convincing event. His theory of demarcation is based upon his perception of the irregularity which holds between verification and falsification. By this logic, every genuine scientific theory is then prohibitive, or in simpler terms restricted. Popper has always preached the distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology. An example of the logic is simply that if an iron metal is unaffected by a magnetic field, this does not mean all iron metals are unaffected by magnetic fields. So, a scientific law is falsifiable although it is not verifiable. Methodologically, it is more complex. This states that no observation is free from the possibility of error, but at the same time we may question whether our experimental result was what it appeared to be.

One of his principal contributions to the philosophy of sciences rests on his rejection of the inductive method in the empirical sciences. In the traditional sense, a scientific hypothesis can be tested and verified by obtaining the repeated outcome of substantiating observations. However, Popper argued that hypotheses are deductively validated by what he called the falsifiability criterion. The criterion of falsifiability is a standard of evaluation of commonly believed scientific theories. Popper's principle of falsifiability defines the inherent testability of any scientific hypothesis. Falsifiability is the assertion that for any hypothesis to have credit, it must be disprovable before it can become accepted as a true scientific hypothesis or theory.

Although Popper's opinion of scientific methodology was extremely persuasive, there were still lots of objections. One criticism of falsificationism involves the relationship between theory and observation. Others argue that observation is itself strongly theory-laden (denoting a term, concept, or statement which has meaning only as part of some theory, so that its use implies the acceptance of that theory). A second criticism of falsifiability says that falsification fails to provide an accurate picture of scientific practice. For example, many historians and philosophers of science have argued that scientists only give up their theories when they are faced with failed predictions.

Upon the topic of human knowledge, Popper claims that the growth of human knowledge proceeds from our problems and from our attempts to solve them. Popper argues that the only technique suitable for the scientific method is deductive testing of theories. Within deductive procedure, conclusions are inferred from a hypothesis. Then these conclusions are compared with another to determine if they falsify or authenticate the hypothesis. These conclusions are not directly compared with facts because by Popper's logic, there are no pure facts. Popper's deductive procedure is done with four steps: formal, semi-formal, comparing the new theory with existing ones, and testing the theory. The first step is formal. This step is a testing of the consistency of the theoretical system to see if it involves any disagreements. The second step is semi-formal. The significance of this theory is to set a clear difference between its empirical and its logical elements. If the scientist performing this step makes a mistake, this could lead to future mistakes. The third step is comparing the new theory with existing ones. The fourth and final step is testing the theory by the empirical application of the conclusions taken from it. If the conclusions are true then the theory is confirmed, but never verified. If the conclusion is false, then the theory cannot be completely correct, or falsified.

Popper was not an atheist, but agnostic about the existence of a god or gods. As he opined,

“I don't know whether God exists or not. We may know how little we know, but this must not be turned or twisted into a positive knowledge of the existence of an unfathomable secret. There is a lot in the world that is in the nature of an unfathomable secret, but I do not think that it is admissible to make a theology out of a lack of knowledge nor turn our ignorance into anything like positive knowledge. Some forms of atheism are arrogant and ignorant and should be rejected, but agnosticism—to admit that we don't know and to search—is all right.”

Karl R. Popper has had an outsized legacy through his contributions to the philosophy of science. Not only was he regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the twentieth century, but also respected as a highly influential social and political philosopher. Popper passed away because of pneumonia and kidney failure at the age of 92 on September 17, 1994 in Kenley, United Kingdom. He became one of the most important influences of the early empiricist program and with his criticism he helped shape the future work of both the logical empiricists and their critics. While his falsification-based approach to scientific methodology is no longer a singularly popular method within the philosophy of science, it played a significant role in preparing groundwork for later successes. Popper's work is in numerous works within the philosophy of science and has continued to influence contemporary researchers.

Further Reading

1. The Paradox of Karl Popper, Scientific American column John Horgan

2. A Doctrine Against Doctrinaires: The Enduring Radical Modesty of Karl Popper, Aeon.

3. Karl Popper's Falsification, YouTube, BBC Radio 4.


Davide Lane (ed.), The Agnostics

Often in the philosophy classes I have taught in undergraduate and graduate school, I would bring up this point of “unknowingness.” Pointing to a crumpled piece of writing paper, I would ask the class, “What is this?” Almost in unison, the students would respond, "A piece of paper." Taking this as my cue to lead into a deeper philosophical investigation of materialism, I probed further, "Yes, but what is that?” Catching my drift, one student invariably answered, “Oh, it is actually a transformed sheet of wood.”

Not wanting them to stop there, I asked, “And wood is made of what?” “It's comprised of molecules," the more scientifically oriented students would shout. Connecting to the now forgotten inner space ride at Disneyland, which takes one through an imaginary voyage inside a snowflake molecule, I queried, “But what is a molecule made of.” By this time, we had gotten down to the subatomic level, and our words began to betray our modicum of knowledge (electrons, protons, quarks, lucky charms, superstring). The final question I asked was quite simple, but given the line of investigation it led to some severe complications: What is matter?

Well, it should be obvious to the reader as it was to my class and to myself that there's only one truly appropriate response, “I don't know.” Now, this is exactly the response not only of most mystics, but most quantum physicists as well. As Sir Arthur Eddington, the distinguished astronomer put it, “Something unknown is doing we don't know what!”

To be sure, mystics have said that the world (or matter) is nothing but consciousness. But, what is consciousness? Not even a sage as enlightened as Ramana Maharshi of South India could answer that question. To such queries, Ramana would often sit in silence. Ultimately, matter leads to consciousness and consciousness to God or Nature (with a capital N) and both to Mystery. However, no matter how you define it, slice it, categorize it, blend it, intuit it, the fact remains that Reality is a Mystery, and nobody apparently (not me, not you, not Einstein) knows what that Reality is. We are sitting right in the middle of the Mystical Dimension.

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